Monday, December 26, 2011

Books as ballast

     Two and a half years ago, when I wasn’t paying close attention, my husband sold our house in Maine and bought one in Virginia in less than a week.
      To clarify, I knew we were thinking of such a move. I knew he was perusing real estate ads on the internet, but for me it was just an eye twinkle; for Gordon it was a ready-to-hatch plan.
      We quit our jobs, tossed half our Maine lives into a dumpster and moved the rest in a U-Haul.  It felt like I had the rug pulled out from under me. In fact, I had.  The rugs unrolled beautifully onto oak floors. The furniture landed and grew comfortable in cozy spaces. I settled, but I’m still on shaky ground.  (Mother Nature ‘s not helping: last summer we felt earth move under our feet as an earthquake’s epicenter was a little more than a stone’s throw away.)
     One way I find my footing is by reaching for and seeking out the things that have given me pleasure: yoga mats, swimming pools, woodland paths, beaches, poetry, books. Some years one predominates; others another, like animals on the Chinese zodiac – only more random and repetitive.  
     2011 was the year of the book. Books have been my ballast. My joy. 
      Books and I go back.  In my mind’s eye I know the shelf where I might find the entire series of animal tales by Thornton W. Burgess in my hometown library – a stately Victorian brick building built in 1900 which no longer houses books. I recall how at 14 or 15 I got caught reading Leon Uris’s Lust for Life under the covers with a flashlight.  How at 16 I stayed home from a school dance so I could finish Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth.  One college summer, when I still believed in tans, I covered my limbs in baby oil and worked through all of Tolkien on a lawn chair. English major in college. Ditto, graduate school.
      So this is an old habit, one I have indulged this year.

      I have not done so much reading since I was in graduate school.  Luxurious full days of reading. I had a lot to catch up on. I began with books passed my way – The Help, Cutting for Stone and moved on to read books  that were making headlines – Freedom,  the Millennium Trilogy, then to recommendations --  Paul Harding’s Tinkers,  Ron Powers’ The Echo Maker (a favorite),  and Generosity (a not-so favorite), Jennifer Egan’s The Keep (another favorite) and A Visit from the Goon Squad.  I hit the library and caught up on all the Michael Connelly mysteries (favorite mystery writer) I missed over the years.  Paul Doiron, who is also editor of Down East Magazine, where my friend Virginia Wright works, has two Maine mysteries (also favorites). Recently I was enchanted by Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus and wowed by Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot and quietly moved by Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table. Other writers I read this year include Geraldine Brooks, Jo Nesbo and Ian Rankin. Oh, and a few Patricia Cornwell (no longer a favorite).   The list doesn’t include the not so memorable – because I don’t – remember them.  I no longer carefully read or even finish mediocre books that go blah, blah, blah.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Connelly’s Bosch looks high and low at crime

Hieronymous Bosch looks at evil and does a double take.
              Michael Connelly’s latest addition to the detective Hieronymous “Harry” Bosch series “The Drop,” provides a diptych of cases, dual views of the origin of evil and pairs of parents and their kids.
               An antsy Bosch, working in Open-Unsolved cases with his partner Chu, has too little to do. Then too much. In one day, two cases are dropped on his desk.  DNA on a blood smear taken from rape and murder victim 20 years ago turns up a match and what appears to be a likely perpetrator – except 20 years ago, the suspect would have been just 8 years old.
A second case comes down from on high. City Councilman Irvin Irving’s son is dead, splattered on a sidewalk beneath the balcony of the Chateau Marmont, a possible accident, suicide or murder; a drop. Irving, Bosch’s old nemesis, wants Bosch on the case. Irving knows Bosch will do an expert job and the case this will test Bosch’s personal ethic: “Everybody counts or nobody counts,” a commitment to equal treatment no matter who the victim is, a commitment Bosch usually applies to the nobodies others ignore.  Will Bosch’s code apply to the son of his worst enemy?
The Irving drop is given high priority.  The other case has been waiting 20 years to be solved, and some feel it can wait a little longer. Not Bosch.
The cases tug Bosch first one way – leading him to crimes by the lowest of the low, and then the other, to political corruption and “high jinx” – police talk for power and influence.  His natural instincts draw him to pursue the  nearly forgotten rape and murder. Pressure from Irving as well as the police chief and an assistant Kiz Rider, Bosch’s former partner, keep pushing him back to the drop case. Bosch’s moral quest to be true to his code drives the plot right up to the final pages.
               Before both cases are solved Bosch comes in contact with the most abhorrent of criminals –pedophiles and a serial killer as well as politically compromised individuals at many levels. Everyone from a journalist pursuing stories to cops and politicians doing favors are potential double crossers. Who is trustworthy when it seems everybody – including Bosch – will cross ethical lines?
One Bosch step over the line includes romancing the social worker counseling the pedophile he’s investigating. The mutual attraction makes for the oddest of courtship rituals; Hannah wants to know where Harry stands on the age-old question– where does evil come from before they proceed with a relationship. The two work at professions that are seemingly at odds on how to respond to darkened hearts. The discussion is an occasion for a theme at the book’s core – the relationship of nature and nurture to the formation of character. That theme also plays out, ironically  in Harry and Hannah’s lives. Harry is the single parent of a teenage daughter. Maddie, who has come to live with him, since the death of her mother, wants to be a cop just like dad.  By contrast, Hannah reveals she has a bad apple son, who’s choices are so different from hers that she struggles to understand him.
While The Drop’s crimes include monstrous acts involving rape and torture, Connelly doesn’t hover over gruesome details.  There are other books for those who wish to look at grisly scenes and cringe. Even better, those curious for grotesque details can revisit the paintings of Bosch’s namesake. Connelly chooses instead to fill his pages describing old and new facets of Bosch’s character as partner, lover, father and future retiree.  Some of the most heartfelt moments are those Bosch spends with 15-year old daughter.  Precocious Maddie seems wise beyond her years – and potentially as good a detective as Bosch.  This comes with  sweet sadness for Bosch readers. He’s getting old and he knows it, feels it.  He tells Maddie he’s losing his edge: “Well, I am thinking that I’m tailing off, you know? Like anything –athletics, shooting, playing music, even creative thinking--  there’s a drop-off of skills at a certain point. And  I don’t know, maybe I’m getting there and I should get out.”
               Which brings us to the double entendre to the title –  drop doesn’t just refer to the unexplained death of Irving’s son.  DROP stands for Deferred Retirement Option Plan, a program that allows the once-retired Bosch to work, but limits how long.  That gives Bosch just a few more cases and a few more years to nurture what  the inherent qualities that dominate daughter Maddie’s nature.
I’m looking forward to discovering the results. Let’s hope Connelly, who is just 55, isn’t  thinking of taking a page from Bosch  and considering slowing down. Though he may be a card carrying AARP member, he’s still got work to do. Maddie Bosch looks like she’s  got a future that will make interesting reading.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

10 things I love about Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot

The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact…

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

The Plot. Launched into the real world in 1982 from an Ivy League cocoon, three young adults transform as they pursue love, work and religion. 
Madeleine Hanna, Mitchell Grammaticus and Leonard Bankheads’ coming-of-age chronicle begins on the morning of graduation, backtracks to their original meetings and subsequent connecting and disconnecting at Brown and then plunges forward into the first year out.
As the bildungsroman begins, Mitchell’s nursing a long crush on Madeleine while Madeleine in turn, has fallen for Leonard and Leonard, it turns out, has fallen apart.   Then Leonard, Madeleine and Mitchell are off trailing their college majors behind them like tattered blankets. They try to embody, to put into personal practice, what they learned in college. But reading about God, marriage and science is not the same as believing, committing to marriage or curing a devastating illness.
Mitchell , a religion major,  backpacks through  Europe and India eventually volunteering at Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, where his devotion to the Christ in each of us, including the sick and dying  is deeply tested.
 Madeleine, an English major focusing on Victorian novels, is extending her honors thesis into an article on whether the marriage plot  ̀a la Jane Austen, the Brontés and Henry James is still possible --  as she  tests the notion of modern marriage itself by moving  in with Leonard.
               Leonard, a biologist, gets a job. He lands a position at a prestigious biology lab in Provincetown where he does grunt work for famous scientists. Instead of focusing on the lab’s yeast cells, he experiments on himself, weaning himself off medication to find just the right level of hypomania –  that highly focused, highly energized, creative and visionary state.
The Reader.  Madeleine is bitten by the book bug at an early age. Her childhood wallpaper has illustrations from the works of Ludwig Bemelmans of her namesake, the French school girl.  Madeleine is mad for books, the titles of which the narrator tells us would label her – like some bookshelf version of a Myers Briggs personality test -- or a DSM (the psychiatric manual) -- “incurably romantic.” Part scholar, part caretaker, unaware of her own allure,  she walks into a Victorian novel of her own making: “It turned out that Madeleine had a madwoman in the attic: it was her six-foot-three boyfriend.” 
The Lunatic.  I confess I too would have fallen for Leonard, the unpredictable and dazzling oddball , who spouts surprising facts and  ebulliently entertains with amazing ideas.  In fact, as a college student a decade earlier I did, except his name was Donald; he also later struggled with the incredible energies and personal devastation mood disorders bring on. Similarly anchored by a staid but slightly boring upbringing, it’s was as easy for me as it was for Madeleine to mistake madness for whimsy, impulsivity for spontaneity, mania for exuberance.   “Incurable romantics” are drawn to such charms.
The Lover.  Hopelessly pining for Madeleine and God, Mitchell has more yearning than any one individual deserves.  Mitchell thrives on striving for love and faith, qualities that seem to drop out of the sky to others – like the Jesus freak he meets at the American Express  office who asks him if he’s saved and hands him a pocket New Testament.  His secret love for Madeleine is matched only by his secret quest for God. He takes clandestine catechism classes before leaving for Europe. “Unbeknown to anyone, as secretly as if he were buying drugs or visiting  a massage parlor Mitchell had been attending weekly meeting with Father Mitchell, at St. Mary’s the Catholic church at the end of Monroe Street.”
The Parents.  God bless Phyllida and Alton. They never say, “We told you so.”  Phyllida and Alton negotiate the uncomfortable positions of wanting to advise and help, but not interfere, in the lives of adult children. They warn, but do not prevent. Once problems arise Alton’s pure reason patiently  and predictably  apprehends, presents alternatives and seeks solutions while all Madeleine can do is cry.  There are two other sets of interesting parents as well.  The best single defining line comes when Leonard’s mother is confronted by Phyllida about Leonard’s illness. Her response “What illness?” followed by its dismissal “Leonard’s always  been theatrical,” reveals all we need to know.
The Acquaintances.  The cast of roommates, classmates, professors, coworkers and fellow pilgrims that accompany the threesome on their respective quests is as amusing as the protagonists. Each is distinctly drawn and acts as antagonist. Some minor characters cause major changes exemplifying how those we bump into on our journey may make strong impressions, or cause major course changes. My favorite is Scarsdale Claire, the women’s studies major on her junior year abroad in Paris.  She challenges Mitchell on patriarchal religions.  Her take: “The whole institutionalized form of Western religion is all about telling women they’re inferior, unclean, and subordinate to men. And if you actually believe in any of that stuff I don’t know what to say.” She gets worse when she discovers Mitchell is reading Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, as a way to celebrate Paris. If we apply the Myers-Briggs, DSM bookshelf strategy, Claire might diagnose a Hemingway reader as “male chauvinist pig.”
The Books.  This book is chockful of other books and reading lists: Novels, Religious mysticism and Semiotics. In the opening chapters, Madeleine takes classes in Victorian marriage novels as well as Semiotics – that branch of literary criticism which brings new attention to the relationship between the reader and  the book.   Eugenides was able to make me feel like a high school junior again, inadequately schooled and ill read as my English teacher cited book after book I should (have) read. This feeling got worse, not better, in college and graduate school. I spent the next 20 or so years catching up before I caught on – No proper 16 year-old had read all the high-brow titles he suggested. I was so busy working my way through classics, I didn’t rediscover the pleasures of low-brow genres until my mid 30s.
      Simultaneously Eugenides made me feel hungry for rereading and new reading. I started composing  lists. Reread Jane Austen and maybe the Brontés.  Intriqued by the notion of books as a way to type or diagnose character  – a recurring motif -- I asked myself what books were on my shelf that might have defined me at that age. Among others, I thought of The Magus by John Fowles. If I reread that maybe I would remember why I liked it, what it said to me then, maybe I would know who I once was.
The Disease (the way it’s portrayed). Having surrounded myself since young adulthood with those who experience the highs and lows of various brain disorders, I learned a great deal about uni-polar and bipolar depression, symptoms, and the course of the diseases.   Here I am in awe.   Though each case of bipolar disorder plays out differently according to one’s personality, Eugenides nails bi-polar disorder’s general characteristics with Leonard’s own quirks.  Those  in the literary know may argue over whether Leonard is based on David Foster Wallace  because he wears a bandana and chews tobacco (see Slate blog Browbeat 10/10 /2011), but  I read each of Leonard’s oddities and incidents  for their verity as symptomatic or characteristic. (Maybe Leonard takes to wearing a bandana to deal with a sweaty brow—a side effect of medication.)  Take mania alone: Excessive phone calls: check. Sleeplessness: check.  Chewing tobacco and constant smoking: check.  Charm: Check. Quick wit and unpredictable off the wall statements: check. Hypersexuality:  check. Impulsivity, including impulsive spending : check. Inappropriate, uncomfortable behavior: check. A scene in which Leonard buys bags and bags of salt water taffy and peppers the 16-year-old clerk tending the store with too-personal questions is particularly unsettling.
I also admire Eugenides’ descriptions of the side effects of medication.   News reports and neighborhood gossip often include side, sometimes snide, remarks saying the subject went off medication—leaving those of us who don’t take this stuff to think this is sufficient explanation and shake our heads.  Eugenides gives us the reasons people quit medication. The shakes, weight gain, metallic taste, loss of libido and a cement mixer head with which one can barely think, are hardly desirable qualities.  Medication’s side effects are horrendous  --  making takers question whether the cure is worse than the disease. The side effects seem particularly cruel  for those 20 somethings who are simultaneously coming down with a disease and  should be bursting with youthful energy.
The Resolution.  I couldn’t imagine how this book might end and leave me satisfied.  I could imagine several endings that might leave me dismissive and even angry.  Eugenides did not disappoint or annoy.  He kept me guessing to the very last page – and deeply pleased, after the final sentence. Just right.
Jeffrey Eugenides.   After Middlesex I Iooked forward to another brilliant and satisfying novel. But for the first 100 or so pages, I wasn’t convinced The Marriage Plot was it. I fought a little.   I thought  “I’m too old for a coming of age book.”  “I don’t want to read about college or the young and the privileged. “ But as the Eugenides’ imagination embodied and gave to idle thoughts local habitations and names, I grew smitten. Laced with allusions to other books, funny, energetic and charming The Marriage Plot won me over.  It made me feel squirmy and uncomfortable, but I never wanted to stop reading. Eugenides can make emerging adulthood seem as painful, chaotic and humiliating as junior high school, but we never dismiss the endearing , important earnestness of youth.
          Shakespeare noted lunatics, lovers and poets (or writers) share characteristic temperaments. Semiotic thinkers and incurable romantic alike might add readers --   like Madeleine. Like me.      

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Hillary Adams’ video post pillories Judge Adams

A story will come out -- let's hope it's a good one
      I’ve been taken by the story of Texas Judge William Adams and his family. As everybody in the world (or 4 million hits on Youtube  as of Friday) seems to know, his 23- year-old daughter posted a six-year-old video of him angrily lashing her with a belt as punishment for illegally downloading material from the internet.  In his initial response the family court judge says a story will come out and dismisses the video as “not as bad as it looks on tape,” but just about everyone who comments disagrees. In this case, even the local police chief investigating says that were it not for the statute of limitations, this incident would likely be prosecuted as child abuse.  As it stands no state or federal charges will be filed, though a state commission on judicial conduct is still investigating the case.
     I don’t believe in vigilantism – initially some viewers had pizzas delivered to his house and the judge has  reportedly received death threats.  I have mixed feelings about such horrendous behavior being so publicly aired, as did his daughter after she posted it.  In an appearance on the Today show she  admits as much and goes on to say  “I think he has been punished enough just by seeing this go public like this, and I think he just really needs help and rehabilitation."
     The internet scares me in that it can make humiliating and shameful moments so public. It serves as a kind of modern-day pillory or stocks  with  Reddit, Youtube and other sites as town squares. Instead of throwing eggs and rotten vegetables, crowds, including anonymous trolls, hurl comments. Whenever I feel like writing what I consider a thoughtful comment, I refrain after looking at the cyber company I keep. I suspect others feel the same way.
     Nevertheless, I am interested in how the internet serves as a forum for public shaming – a place that exposes what Nathaniel Hawthorne labels with the good old fashioned word  ignominy,  that Webster’s defines as   “deep personal humiliation and disgrace.”
      In  The Scarlet Letter,  Hester Prynne  emerges from jail with a scarlet A for adulterer, embroidered on the clothing covering her breast.  Her secret sin has been made public by the birth of her daughter, Pearl, in the absence of her husband , Roger Chiillingworth, who had not yet arrived from Europe. The scandalous  Hester refuses to name the father of her child. Though the situations have very  limited parallels, there are some similarities. Judge Adams’  secret has been revealed and his reputation will likely be forever tarnished by an association – an A for  abuser unless…..
      Unless he changes as Hester did.   She reinterprets her A through the regenerative power of imagination and healing.  Subsequently over time Hester’s good works make others forget what the A stands for – some suggest it stands for “Able.”
     What if family court Judge Adams humbly sought help, engaged in family counseling, made amends and reconciled with his family? What if he acknowledged his dysfunction first instead of lashing out at those around him?  This is what Hillary Adams says she would like to have happen as a result of making the secret video public. It seems his ex-wife Hallie, who also lashes Hillary in the video, has begun this process. She has left the marriage, apologized and repaired her relationship with her daughter. People can and do change.
       What an extraordinary man Judge Adams might become.   A man who might be an example to others. A man others might turn to for advice.  A man others might look up to for his good judgment.
      I would like to read that story.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Morgenstern's 'Circus' mostly sweet dreams

Open the cover of Erin Morgenstern’s novel, The Night Circus. Turn the first pages and the black and white on the pages start to take shape:  From mere print springs black and white striped tents full of mesmerizing acts -- as if this were a pop-up book. Turn a few more. Like a flap book, the Le Cirque des Reves, the Circus of Dreams, will likely lure you in to seek its secrets.
The Cirque des Reves has many peculiar qualities. It is only open from dusk to dawn and locates according to an unknown schedule.  As unpredictable as a dream, the circus materializes seemingly out of nowhere and disappears the same way.
And like a dream it’s easy to get lost in.  A young visitor named Bailey does: “And every turn he took through the twisting striped pathways led to more tents, more signs, more mysteries. …. Everything was magical and it seemed to go on forever. None of the pathways ended, they curved onto others or circled back to the courtyard.”
Yet we discover the circus was created not just for visitors’ pleasure but as a venue for a mysterious challenge.  Two illusionists make a gentleman’s wager in which they pit their protégés against each other. Prospero proposes the challenge and binds his naturally and presumably genetically talented daughter, Celia, to the task.  Celia at age 5 is already adept at exploding a cup of tea and putting it back together again—tea and all.   As her father’s apprentice, she learns by doing, dragged from theater to theater, given private lessons in mending broken dolls, bird’s wings and finger wounds.  The man in the gray suit, aka Alexander, adopts an orphan, isolates and surrounds him with books as well as facilitates occasional visits to museums and libraries.  The youth, who names himself Marco, reads his way to illusion via mythologies, histories, novels. He masters ancient tomes and foreign languages, runes, spells and charms.
                 Orchestrated by theatrical producer Chandresh Chrisophe Lefevre and organized at an intimate Midnight Dinner, the circus is designed and overseen by a unique creative group that are (save for Alexander) unaware of the challenge. Each, like an ingredient in a charm potion, brings something rare to the mix. Mme Ana  (Tante) Padva, a retired Romanian prima ballerina and “a fiend for aesthetics” with an eye for fashion, brings her personal sense of style which is “slightly morbid, incredibly elegant.”  Ethan Barris, engineer and architect brings structure.  Sisters, Tara and Lainie Burgess, Janes of all trades –  i.e. dancers, actresses and  librarians are careful observers of nuance  and detail.  Mr. A. H-- , aka Alexander,  brings Marco to serve as Lefevre’s assistant and prime arranger as he competes clandestinely in the challenge.
               Lefevre knows what he doesn’t want . “No elephants or clowns. Something more refined than that. Nothing  Commonplace. This will be different. This will be an utterly unique experience, a feast for the senses. Theatrics sans theater, an immersive entertainment.”  Think Victorian counterpart to the contemporary and colorful Cirque to Soleil  -- mystique, elegance and exotic flair.
               Lefevre knows what he wants when he sees it: the extraordinary contortionist, Tsukiko, and the illusionist, Celia. Once Celia is hired, the pieces are in place.
The undefined challenge is something like a chess match played out in ever-expanding tents of the circus, whose linking pathways are appropriately checkered in black and white squares.  The color motif suggests shades of the night. The circus features some of the more usual things—aerialists and  acrobats (though these work with no nets) and halls of mirrors and tents with names like  Flights of Fancy, Ethereal Enigmas, Fearsome Beasts and Strange Creatures.
As Marco and Celia make their moves, they provide the extraordinary: A multi-colored magical bonfire, a carousel of ravens, gryphons, foxes and wyrens, an ice garden and cloud maze, a labyrinth a menagerie and a wishing tree, among others.   The competing creators balance desire and control often using elements of fire and ice, a combination the poet Robert Frost might admire -- until both desire and control begin to take their toll and the competitors learn the cost of illusion.  
               The bettors occasionally reappear.   Hector, like many a modern-day parent seems both to be always hovering, and never quite there for his daughter.  The man in the gray suit seems absent even when he’s present.  Add to the cast of characters, Isobel, the fortune teller, and a younger generation of performers, twins Poppet and Widget -- one who can read the future, the other can see the past. 
              The circus is so successful it has a chronicler, Herr Friedrick Thiessen, as well as a cult following, circus goers who call themselves Reveurs. They dress in shades of black, white and gray with sashes and scarves of red.  The cult spreads the show’s unpublished schedule through word of mouth and members follow the performances in a kind of Victorian version of Grateful Dead fans.  The most mesmerized of fans is Bailey, a young man torn between the dreams of his grandmother, Harvard, and his father, take over the family farm).
               First-time novelist Erin Morgenstern takes after several of her characters.  Part Tante Padva,   the costume designer, she dresses her characters beautifully.  Part Lefevre, event planner/ theatrical producer, she creates grand feasts and arenas for extravagant feats. Wonderful food smells waft through the book and magnificent meals are served.  She shows an attention to details worthy of the Burgess sisters and her structures hold up nicely as Ethan’s.  Like Thiessen, she chronicles. Like Isobel she divines. But the two characters she most resembles are the illusionists, Marco and Celia, who create magical dreamlike worlds for us to roam around in. More than just visual or sensory, her writing creates an almost physical presence in the reader’s imagination just as a dream may seem almost real upon waking; such is its magic.
The occasional use of the second person, which I have imitated here, has a slightly hypnotic effect, like that of an invisible barker at once coaxing and lulling, inviting the reader into the circus.
At book’s end other readers might feel, as I did, as if I had awoken from a dream that I wanted to hold onto for a little longer.   I had a day ahead of me, but I could remember just enough to keep bringing pieces of it back to me.
My recommendation? Put your black dress on. Or don a dark suit.  Toss a red scarf around your neck.  Open the book. Enter the circus.  Become a reveur.  

Monday, October 3, 2011

Untangling knotted plots in Nesbo's The Redbreast

             Reading Norwegian mystery writer Jo Nesbo’s The Redbreast is like opening a jewelry box, finding several knotted necklaces and spending hours untangling them: frustrating.
               I  begin easily shifting:
·        From a Norwegian toll barrier on  November 1, 1999, where a visiting US President and his entourage are about to pass through;
·        To an Oslo courtroom on October 5 where Sverre Olsen, a Neo Nazi is about to be sentenced;
·        To a street outside a doctor’s office (October  5) where an old man has just been told he will soon die;
·        To the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where Norwegian officials are planning surveillance (Oct. 5);
·        To the palace gardens where a Pakistani boy meets the old man and they exchange a meaningful conversation (also Oct. 5);
·        To police headquarters where detective Harry Hole and his partner discuss losing a court case to Crime Division  Bjarne Moller’s office (Oct. 9) where he assigns Harry  to security detail for the President’s visit;
·        and  then back again to the toll booth (Nov. 1);

I am okay with this – even though I will later wonder if all of this set up and prelude was necessary. (If I were in a kinder mood, I would see this beginning as structurally tidy front bookend for a similar scene at the end.)   This minor flashback in the prelude prepares me for part two which flips back to 1942 to a trench of Norwegian soldiers (Daniel Gudeson, Gudbrand  Johansen,  Sindre Faulke, Edvard Mosken and  Hallgrim Dale) who are fighting for the Germans against the Russians on the Eastern front in Leningrad, then back to Oslo 1999 where the surviving former soldiers are now in their 80s. The old man is plotting something very bad. He makes contact in a pizza shop with Olsen and arranges to buy a very high-powered unusual gun.  Olsen is only the go-between. Someone mysterious is the gun dealer.
Dominant plot lines begin to emerge. Hole assigned to Security, starts investigating unusual gun shell casings found at a practice spot. The ammunition is not for hunting game in Norway.  His former partner Ellen is assigned to work with Tom de Waller, a racist cop. Some of the old soldiers, who returned to Norway only to be treated as traitors, are murdered.  Hole starts investigating their lives. Switch back to 1942 where one of the old soldiers, (but which one?) meets the love of his life while convalescing in a Vienna hospital and plots to escape with her.  Hole also meets a woman who could become the love of his life – she’s so attractive he’s reduced to near speechlessness.    But there are a few more characters each with a story of his own: Even Juul, former Resistance member and current   historian  who  writes about such issues as “Conditions  for fascism  seen in the light of increasing unemployment in Western Europe,”  Andreas  Hochner, an arms dealer in South Africa, et. al.
You get the point. Too many intersecting characters. Too many tangled plot lines.
I feel confused, then lost.  I flip back and reread.  I sort, take notes, and list each name on my bookmark. I make up a way to pronounce each Norwegian name to ensure I do not read over it  --  practices I use when I read  foreign novels with many characters.  Nevertheless, the characters – particularly the soldiers ­­­­­-- keep morphing into each other in my mind (which is what is what happens in the novel, but I don’t know it.)
 I will not give up. I soldier on.
             Complexity becomes convolution. The repeating patterns I loved so much in Nemesis annoy me here. The old man’s identity and motives stay concealed through 400 of the 500 pages until finally, we get told the story all over again -- in a cohesive form, a diary that explains it all. Perhaps retelling is the only way to put the story back together again.
           One suspenseful technique— missed or cut off telephone calls in which the caller fails to name names  -- didn’t seem to be crafted parallelism, but only an overused  and easy gimmick.  When I get to the suggestion of multiple personalities as a possible explanation, I feel tricked. While layered plotting in “Nemesis” appeared brilliant to me, The Redbreast’s seems contrived.
            I am not completely alone. When I started being irritated, I scanned reviews to see if others concurred.  I fall into a small minority. The Redbreast is loved by many who rate it on websites.  Moreover it won the Glass Key Award for the Best Nordic Crime Novel, a prestigious award in Northern Europe, and Norwegian readers voted it the best crime novel of all time.  (I wonder if Norwegian readers would have an easier time given familiarity with place, character names and culture).
From the reviews I discovered that factual errors having to do with the death penalty in South Africa and the mechanics of guns used and Secret Service procedures detract from the novel’s authenticity.
          What I did like: I find Nesbo to be a good writer. He goes for the big, important themes and underscores them with motifs. He introduces The Redbreast, the robin, of the title in an opening quotation from a legend about a compassionate bird removing a thorn from the Christ on the cross.  In the first chapter Hole and Ellen see a redbreast and discuss its dilemma: migrating south or taking a risk and sticking around. If it’s a mild winter, the bird gets the best nesting places. If it’s harsh, it may die.   Then Nesbo  allows birds and the theme to flit throughout the book.
           He uses a lot of parallel structures resulting in deeply layered stories, my kind of books.  Several characters, like the Redbreast bird, face pivotal dilemmas, life-changing decisions and have to live with the consequences. Men make decisions about whom to fight, which side to take and how and when to return. Women make decisions about whom to submit to and whom to protect.  Tough decisions in times when manipulation and betrayal is rife and others dictate what’s fair in love and war.
            I loved the way Nesbo captured love.  What’s a good war story without a convalescing soldier falling for his nurse? What’s a good mystery without the hero falling for a beautiful woman? Magnetic attraction reduces Hole to adolescent awkwardness.
            Finally, I liked what I learned about Norway’s role in World War II and repercussion today.  It gave me a context for last summer’s camp massacre.  I am reminded how little I understand about the rest of the world.  Though I lived abroad for a year during formative years, I’ve only travelled as a tourist since. Much of my adult life has been sheltered in homogeneous Maine, the second whitest state (with 95.2 % behind Vermont at 95.3) in the nation according to the 2010 census.  Fascism and immigration have been minor issues for me.  So I am grateful for what I learn from my armchair travels.
There are times in history when people make choices, though all options seem bad. Repercussions can extend through generations.   Often those times coincide with economic challenges, waves of unemployment, immigration and political polarization, conditions that face both Europe and the United States.
 Enthusiastic after discovering “Nemesis,” I followed up “The Redbreast,” its antecedent. I am glad I read the books out of order because I might have quit.  Instead, I’m still drawn to the series as there’s still a crime to be solved:  a murder of one very close to Harry Hole. Next up for crime stories: Devil’s Star.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Scouting the territory: day trips in central Virginia

For more photos from our day trip scouting missions, click on Gordon's blog at Gordospace -- see blogs I follow.

On weekends we scout.
We set a time to shut down computers, hop into the Prius and head for scenic frontiers. I drive. Gordon navigates – but he doesn’t like maps and sometimes naps, so he can be unreliable.
It matters little or as the young and glib say, “No worries.” We can’t get lost if we aren’t headed anywhere. And if it should happen that we grow tired, cranky and wanna go home, we tap on our Tom Tom GPS, and a firm, but slightly sexy, British voice tells us how to get there. Sometimes we wander nearby roads to see what’s around the corner; other times we try to follow planned routes that loop from home and back.
We are discovering central Virginia after moving from Maine.
What a surprise it is! Landscapes unfurl before us, more beautiful, more rural, than I ever imagined. The truth is, before moving I had no sense of what our new state looked like.
A little more than two years later, I am still awed by roads that wind past vast expanses of mowed fields – fields patterned in yellow hay, newly plowed red Virginia clay and green abundant crops. Cows, horses and a few donkeys graze in endless Arcadian pastures. White slatted fences outline grand estates; some are gated; many are named. I look and drift back to the newsroom where I worked for a few decades and think about all those dying Maine farm stories. Who lives in these places? Where do they work? Or do they? Are most of these places owned in the Jeffersonian tradition by modern-day gentlemen and gentlewomen farmers? What becomes of these non-CAFO cows?
I know Virginia agriculture has been transforming itself over the past several decades, but it seems while many of Maine’s farms have closed down, some of Virginia’s have spiffed up. Fueled in part the local foods craze, their abundance –organic and otherwise -- spills out at the area’s numerous Farmer’s Markets and upscale restaurants. As we drive along, we pass orchards and vineyards, many of them recent sophisticated additions to the rural landscape. The vineyards beckon day trippers for wine tastings and offer pastoral settings for weddings and other galas in sumptuous grand halls. On a recent trip we came across a variation on this theme, a “cidery” -- but all the cider was hard so as the teetotalers we are, we declined to imbibe.
Some roads twine up through heavily wooded mountain passes, so narrow we hope no cars approach, and fear if there are no cars, we could be stranded for days. Another road led us to “a ford,” a place where we would have to drive through a stream to continue along the road. Presumably the folks who live here regularly drive pick-ups, but we turned around, not quite sure what tire-high water might do to an electric hybrid.
On many nearby roads, the Blue Ridge Mountains loom in the background or declare themselves in the foreground, spectacular and soft, mystic in majesty.
            There’s a valley road just an hour northwest of here. Look left, mountains; look right, more mountains. And then of course, there’s the famous Blue Ridge Parkway. The first time we took it, the mountains made Gordon think of his father, Georg, who emigrated to Maine from Austria. He had been a ski guide in the Alps where mountains soar to more than 15,000 feet. Georg, or George as he renamed himself, would privately voice his opinion that what the natives call mountains like these– he called hills. Hills or mountains, they are big enough for me and blue truly Blue, amazingly blue, just as Vermont’s mountains are Green, truly green, and shall we even think it, New Hampshire’s mountains are White. At the peak snow persists into summer on Mount Washington, which Georg had Gordon and his brother trek up and ski down one spring.
A little Wikipedia research tells me “trees put the ‘blue’ in Blue Ridge, from the isoprene released into the atmosphere, thereby contributing to the characteristic haze on the mountains and their distinctive color.” Click deeper into Wikipedia on isoprene and it says that oaks and poplars are among the emitting trees and there’s a “hypothesis that isoprene emission appears to be a mechanism that such trees use to combat heat stresses.”
Note that’s not cold stresses, which gets us back to why we are here. While we have not yet found ourselves oppressed by heat, Gordon still suffers from an accumulation of lifetime cold stress.
Those who play outdoors in the cold have good reason to live in Maine. But it’s been a long time since we took advantage of winter. Gordon skied enough in his youth for a lifetime, and while I may have enjoyed a few more winter walks on Pine Point Beach, the occasional snow here satisfies my need for white stuff. There’s even skiing available at nearby Wintergreen resort though so far we have only taken our car to its summit.
The Blue Ridge mountains south of here are higher than the Green and the White, (in North Carolina and Tennessee there are 39 peaks that are more than 6,000 feet, while only the White’s Washington reaches that high.) The Blues have no Alpine zone, no tree line. While Georg, who skied into his mid 80s may not have been comfortable here, we now call this climate zone, and its big blue hills, home.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Nesbo's "Nemesis" stakes ground in Nordic Noir

      Just when you think you know what’s going on, you know you don’t. Such are the twists in Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo’s Nemesis.  Solutions are always just out of the mind’s grasp – and there may be double or triple possible answers for the intertwining investigations detective Harry Hole pursues.
      A masked man enters a bank and when the money is not withdrawn fast enough, he shoots a teller. Robbery becomes murder. Both crime and robbery divisions of the Oslo police investigate.
      After an evening visiting ex-lover Anna, Harry, a recovering alcoholic, wakes up at home vomiting with no memory, and no mobile phone.  Anna is found shot to death. While others deem the death a suicide, Harry secretly pursues it as a crime, with himself as a possible suspect.   Intrigue deepens when Harry starts receiving cryptic e-mail messages from someone who has knowledge of his visit.
     Two more unsettling deaths occupy the background: that of Harry’s former partner, Ellen, and that of colleague Beate Lonn’s father, a police officer shot during a robbery years before.
      Tall, athletic, pushing 40, and full of flaws, Harry ranks as the best investigator on the Oslo force.  As a result he’s resented by some colleagues, protected by the Crime division boss, Bjarne Moller, and valued for his unconventional methods by  the Chief superintendent who confidentially gives him free rein when the robberies continue and the search for the perpetrator dubbed “the Expeditor” appears to be going nowhere.
     Harry’s self-described vices include smoking, lying and holding grudges. Holding grudges is a motivating force in his pursuit of justice.  (His least attractive trait is his name. Intentional humor or translation fluke? ) Harry’s  virtues include the dogged pursuit of justice, loyalty, craftiness and a sweet devotion to and tenderness for his girlfriend, Rakel, and her young son, Oleg, who are  away in Moscow in the midst of a contentious custody battle.
      Other characters come with their own well-defined personalities complete with quirks: 
 There are fellow police officers.
      Beate Lonn, a woman so unremarkable Harry thinks upon meeting her that if he turned away for a second he would forget what she looked like, becomes the officer in robberies unit he will work most closely with.  Small, plain, pallid, her oddity is a remarkable enhanced Fusiform gyrus, that part of the brain that specializes in facial recognition. Hers allows her to recognize all the faces she has ever seen and remember them forever.  (Does she also possess enhanced memory?)
     Egotistical, blonde, blue-eyed, always tanned Rune Ivaarson struts in as head of robberies unit. He grates so on Harry that Harry covertly finds a way to ditch him and work a parallel investigation with just Beate.  Ivaarson’s wits do not match his looks. His is a minor league ego compared to the slimy, but very smart, Tom Waaler, who’s been  told he looks like David Hasseloff from Baywatch  -- the same chin, body and smile. Waaler appears as if he is God’s gift to women but operates as if women are God’s gift to him.
      There are the victims and their survivors.
      Anna, a mediocre artist who lives fully, provides a sexy Bohemian to the plot.  Many lovers have been drawn in by her slim curvaceous body, dark, husky laugh and indecent lips.  A few wrinkles and strands of gray hair suggest fading vitality
     The bank teller Stine Grete’s grieving widower, Trond Grete picks up the role of madman for a time. He’s  so distraught he plays tennis alone in the rain following her death, and is subsequently treated for a breakdown.
      Perhaps the most wily among this crafty cast is self-imprisoned gypsy, Raskol Baxnet, master bank robber, illusionist, unpredictable chess player, and wily philosopher of revenge. He cites Sun Tzu’s Art of War,  a book he says is about the art of winning conflicts or getting what you want at the lowest possible price.   Using sleight of hand, he proves a good manipulator can make you believe that a money bill is a knife’s edge. He, like Harry, lies and hold grudges and honors his promises.  Noble in character, he settles scores adhering to a personal code outside the law.  Harry follows his example finding a haven from pursuit in prison, if only for a visit.
       U.S. armchair travelers like me may enjoy becoming familiar with Oslo’s chilly weather, streets, and temperament. We are also treated to an exotic journey to a community in Brazil where wanted criminals and shady characters from all over the world can live a safe, clandestine existence ignored by local officials for a price.
     Jo Nesbo’s plot layers, repeats images, uses doubles and foils creating patterns almost geometric through reflections.  It’s as if we are seeing the pieces of truth, not as parts of a puzzle piecing together but through the lens of an ever-shifting taleidoscope, the kaleidoscope cousin that mirrors what it’s pointed at.  We may be dazzled with the ever changing splinters of possibility, even as we yearn to see the patterns resolve into the full picture beyond.
     Such reflections are applied not just to events, but also to the familial relationships of characters. Characters double and recombine as family ties bind, shift and break into surprising patterns.
      And finally the taleidoscope aims at the book’s theme, “Nemesis,” and revenge in its spectrum of forms: settling scores, retaliation, retribution, justice.  Nesbo explores revenge as motive and motif. Nemesis is the name of the work of art Anna hopes to be remembered for: a triptych lighted by a lamp whose base is figurine depicting Nemesis, the goddess of revenge.   Nemesis recurs as code and as part of the larger arc of the series.
     Revenge as theme is explored as a psychological concept: A psychologist Harry consults suggests suicide is often a form of revenge. Harry catches a bit of television punditry and a philosopher and a social anthropologist discuss revenge as a political concept. One says:  “A Country like USA, which stands for certain values like freedom and democracy, has a m has moral responsibility to avenge attack on its territory as they are also attacks on its values.  Alone the desire for retaliation – and the execution of it – can protect such a vulnerable system as democracy.” Revenge is discussed religiously: “The lord shall come to judge the quick and the dead. God as Nemesis. Harry references revenge in a discussion of Aristotle’s aesthetic principle of catharsis.   Finally revenge is seen as the raison d’etre for Harry’s  profession: Humanity and society, we are told, can’t survive without it.
     While the book knits the many plots and subplots to a satisfying conclusion, one large end remains loose, as yet beyond Harry’s and the reader’s reach – Harry’s Nemesis. For the reader the loose end becomes reason to continue in the series.  Like others, I have not read the books currently available in translation in their sequential order:  The Redbreast, Nemesis, Devil’s Star, The Redeemer, The Snowman, The Leopard.  I will go back and fill in with Redbreast before proceeding.
      With the enormous success of the Millenium Series and the death of Steig Larsson, American publishers  and readers are hungry for more in the genre I recently saw referred to as “Nordic noir.”  Nesbo stakes his ground at the top of this niche. The best part: He’s alive and writing.

Thanks to Amanda for suggesting this author.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Cost of Knowledge In Caleb's Crossing

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away,
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry --
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears a Human soul.
             ---- Emily Dickinson 

Geraldine Brooks’ latest frigate bears us effortlessly into the 17th century past of Martha ’s Vineyard and Harvard College via research and imagination in her novel “Caleb’s Crossing.” Using the historical figure, Caleb Cheesahteauhmauk , Harvard’s first Native American graduate (class of 1665) as a springboard, Brooks invents early American profiles in courage.
For such traverses, like sea crossings at the time, come with much “oppress of Toll,” for the hero, Caleb, and narrator, Bethia Mayfield, as they attempt the precarious journeys of book learning and cross-cultural experiences.
Caleb, a Wampanoag, defies a powerful relative and learns the language, customs and beliefs of the English settlers’ by living among them, studying their books and attending Harvard College. Bethia, a minister’s daughter, surreptitiously wanders the island, sneaks books and silently learns Wampanaontoaonk speech, as well as rudimentary Latin, Greek and Hebrew, by listening to lessons given to men --lessons scandalous for a woman.
Both venture into forbidden realms and pay the price.
Young Bethia believes the price is her soul. In the opening pages, written when she is 15, living in Great Harbor, she tells the reader, “I killed my mother,” by which she means she believes her mother’s death is God’s retribution for her sins.

 “I broke the commandments day following day.  And I did it knowingly. Minister’s daughter: how could I say otherwise? Like Eve, I thirsted after forbidden knowledge and I ate forbidden fruit. For her, the apple, for me, the white hellebore – different plants, proferred from the same hand. . . .
 We are taught early here to see Nature as a foe to be subdued. But I came by stages, to worship it. You could say for me, this island and her bounties became the first of my false gods, the original sin that begot so much idolatry. 

She comes by her independent spirit and rebellion against rigid Puritan codes by example; family members present mixed messages.  Her grandfather settles on the island community breaking off from the strict and punitive Massachusetts Bay Colony.   In public, Bethia’s mother cultivates silent listening and picking up information.  At home with her children she tells stories about foreign lands and strange ways. Bethia’s father’s teaches her only what’s appropriate for a girl—her catechism. When he discovers he has learned her brother’s lessons by listening in, he tells her “You risk addling your brain by thinking on scholarly matters that need not concern you. It is not seemly for a wife to know more than her husband.” Nevertheless, in his will he leaves her his Homer and Hebrew Bible. Bethia’s father also preaches to the natives, stands up to the xenophobe in his congregation and even takes in Caleb to live under his roof.
Bethia begins her tale on the eve of the day Caleb is to live with them, to join her brother Makepeace, and another Wampanoag Islanderunder the tutelage of her father. As she describes events that led to this moment, a moment she is partly and secretly responsible for, she says her first sin was disobedience. At 12 she went into the island wilderness alone where she met Caleb.  He taught her the island’s secrets – such as how and where to berry and fish, while she, in turn, taught him reading, speaking and the beliefs of her religion. Entranced by his customs, she also dabbledin encounters with pagan ceremonies and intoxicating spiritual substances.
The death of her mother is followed by others that she will likewise attribute to divine punishment for transgressions and/or intervention by Satan.
Caleb also loses relatives.  Spurred by those deaths as well as curiosity and intellectual talent, he is less conflicted in his ventures across cultures. He reveals to Bethia just before they both set off for Cambridge why he seeks knowledge of the powerful English god, and the settler’s books despite disapproval of his uncle, a powerful spiritual healer.
The second section Bethia writes at age 17 in Cambridge which according to Bethia is “an unlovely  town.”  It also stinks. “There was a reek of beasts from the Ox-Pasture and the Cow Common, a rich tidal stink of rot and decay, and a stench such as comes from people pressed in close habitation.”
Bethia  accompanies her brother to Mr. Corlett’s  School, a preparatory school for nearby Harvard College. Bethia works as an indentured servant in exchange for Makepeace’s fees, cleaning and waiting on the young scholars. Caleb and Joel also attend the school; their way is paid by English benefactors who wish to convert the Indians. It’s cold. The boys must drink only weak beer because the water is brackish and they bathe in an outside trough.  Homemade soap is difficult to come by. The boys eat off wooden plates. Nevertheless, the boys  find a way to distinguish between the well to do and the less so. The  most privileged are the “pewter platers” so named because they have brought pewter tankards and trenchers, engraved with their initials, so they don’t have to eat off the worn wooden ones the common students use.
   Following her years at the prep school, Bethia chooses to work  in the Buttery at Harvard, where she can also  listen in on lectures. Once again we get a very different view of elite education: students are not allowed to use the books in the library; only lecturers and tutors; young men crowd into a leaky, drafty ruin of a dormitory and many pay part of their board in goods – cows, shoes and  firewood.  The best building, made of bricks, was built with British funds from Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to the Indians to be used as the Indian College. (In time, Harvard’s president finds a way of subverting this original intent for use by the settlers.)
 While Caleb negotiates prejudice and discrimination and proves his scholarly mettle, Bethia negotiates marriage offers discovering along the way that arguing and swearing an oath at her brother to whom she is subservient is an offense punishable by the courts.
The final section is written in Great Harbor when Bethia is 70. Her own passages almost complete, she feels compelled to take up her pen and finish Caleb’s story, calling him a hero for having the courage to challenge what others thought was unthinkable – crossing into another culture.
No such prohibitions held back author Brooks as she researched and wrote, though a few she consulted were guarded about her work. Some current tribal members, says Brooks, “have been frank in expressing reservations about an undertaking that fictionalizes the life of a beloved figure and sets down an imagined version of that life that may be misinterpreted as factual.  She attempts in her afterword to address reservations by setting the historical record straight and “distinguishing scant fact from rampant invention.”
  Much of the grace of her book comes from the way she blends specific facts and general research about the period with skillful invention.  Like Bethia, we easily pick up and adapt to the language as we eavesdrop on unfamiliar words like “salvages (for savages), somewhen,  sennights, tegs,  and sonquem, and turns of phrase: “He brims like a stream in spate, gathering all the knowledge.”   How smoothly we  cross into this world Brooks creates. There are rich descriptions of place and references to historical figures of the time --- the poet  Anne Bradstreet, the heretic Anne Hutchinson, Govs. Danforth and Winthrop as well as early Harvard figures like Chauncy. We never feel the story becomes an occasion for a history lesson; rather the narrative holds us in its present, unfolding events fluently, as it transports us to another world in another time.
By book’s end we may remind ourselves that even today many vilify those who worship different Gods and knowledge can come at great cost. But Brooks’ chariot confirms the cost of ignorance is greater.
Nathaniel Hawthorne said of nearby Boston of 1642 that it owed its state of development to the “sombre sagacity of age; accomplishing so much precisely because it imagined and hoped for so little.” Hester Prynne’s sin in “The Scarlet Letter” was adultery, but her transgression was that she thought, imagined and hoped outside her time.  What we allow into our heads matters. But what we allow ourselves to imagine also matters.  Both knowledge and imagination are luxuries struggling communities sometimes seem little able to afford.  It may take two young people who embrace the pursuit of knowledge and the invention of the imagination for change to begin to happen.
I’m glad that Caleb Cheesahteauhmauk and Bethia Mayfield had the courage to cross cultures.
I’m also glad Geraldine Brooks indulged her inquiring and imaginative mind to give us such a satisfying armchair journey. For me the ride was not just frugal, but free; a friend passed along the book.